The Alabama Shakespeare Festival is currently offering an exceptional production of Tom Dudzick’s humorous play, “Over the Tavern.” The story line is about a Catholic family in the 1950s that literally lives over a tavern. The characters, Chester and Ellen, are struggling to raise their four children, including two teenagers, a son who has down syndrome and a son who doesn’t want to be Catholic.
In fact, the story revolves around the young doubter, Rudy, and a nun, Sister Clarissa, who is determined to convert Rudy to the faith.
The play is autobiographical and depicts, albeit in humorous form, Dudzick’s own struggle with his faith. As we watch Sister Clarissa employ increasingly manipulative and coercive measures, it’s not hard to sense an undercurrent of anger towards the church. Later, when we learn how the church condoned the abuse of Rudy’s father Chester, the anger becomes palpable.
It would be easy to use the play as an opportunity to bash the Roman Catholic Church, but that would not be fair. Christians of all varieties have more than their share of guilt when it comes to inappropriate uses of the faith.
I attended a Vacation Bible School commencement service a few years ago. The pastor of the church decided to close out the week long school by inviting a professional evangelist to address over 200 children. This guy had a reputation for racking up the converts. I soon found out why.
The children marched into the sanctuary and went through their pledges and mission stories. Finally it was time for the sermon.
The evangelist spoke passionately about how much God loved little children. He told them about Jesus coming into the world and dying on the cross for their sins so they could go to heaven one day.
“You do want to go to heaven?” he asked them
Then he said this: “Imagine you are driving home tonight and you are in a car accident. All of you are killed. Your parents are Christians and so they go to heaven. But if you are not a Christian, you can’t go with them. Wouldn’t it be terrible if you never saw your parents again?”
About 130 children presented themselves for baptism that night.
Of course, I understand the argument. Getting people to faith is so important to some that any means justifies that end. But I don’t think scaring children with the threat of eternal separation from their parents actually creates faith.
Faith in God must be based on something more than fear or blind acceptance of dogma. That is what makes Rudy’s character in the play so delightful. He is fearless in the presence of Sister Clarissa’s bullying. And he is fearless in questioning accepted truth.
He is even fearless in the midst of his family’s dysfunction. In fact, it is partly due to Rudy’s courage that the family begins to heal and move toward a more functional way of being together. Everyone’s faith even gets stronger, well except for Rudy. He remains the courageous doubter until the end. And that is not necessarily a bad thing.
Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Certitude is the opposite of faith. Doubt is an essential human quality that keeps us from being tricked into thinking we know what in fact cannot be known. We can have faith in God, but as humans we are incapable of grasping the totality of who God is.
A little healthy doubt keeps us honest, and humble.
James L. Evans is pastor of Auburn First Baptist Church, Auburn, Ala.